The overnight success of her debut thriller wrenched British author Paula Hawkins out of poverty and into the Hollywood limelight. As she launches its spine-tingling follow-up with an exclusive Event preview, she reveals the personal price she’s paid
Paula Hawkins was broke, desperate and on the verge of giving up writing when her thriller The Girl On The Train became a worldwide, overnight sensation. She’s sold more than 20 million copies in two years and seen her story made into a hugely popular movie starring Emily Blunt. Surely she’s ecstatic? ‘Obviously it’s fantastic and it has been an amazing experience,’ says Hawkins, but there’s something hesitant in her voice – and the words she uses to describe the experience are troubling. ‘Overwhelming. And terrifying. It makes you feel vulnerable and exposed.’
Paula Hawkins was broke, desperate and on the verge of giving up writing when her thriller The Girl On The Train became a worldwide, overnight sensation
That’s a surprise, but Hawkins is clearly still reeling from the shock of it all and feels under fierce scrutiny as a brand new literary superstar.
She’s going to talk with disarming honesty about that, her struggle to know what to do with a fortune estimated at £10 million and the pressure she’s under to deliver a successful follow-up, with her new book Into The Water about to come out.
‘I will be very surprised if it sells as many copies as The Girl On The Train. Obviously my publishers will be very disappointed if it completely bombs. Everybody will be disappointed. I will be disappointed.’
But the sales are more the publisher’s problem, she says. ‘What I’m really nervous about is the reviews.’ Fame will bring a lot more personal attention this time, too. ‘There will be a lot of stuff written about me, that’s the frightening bit.’
Emily Blunt was allowed to keep her accent, portraying Rachel as an English woman lost in New York
Hawkins is a very private, almost shy person who trembled with nerves at times when I first interviewed her two years ago, just after the book came out. She was still living in a Brixton flat with her ex-boyfriend back then, clearing off debts to her parents and wondering if The Girl On The Train – which she described as her ‘last throw of the dice’ – really was going to save her as writer.
Hawkins had struggled as a financial journalist and then failed as a chick-lit novelist under another name, Amy Silver. But then she and her agent sold half an unfinished novel to a publisher and it became The Girl On The Train.
This was just after the success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. ‘Girls didn’t start with me,’ she admits, drily. A huge advertising campaign and a remarkable word-of-mouth response saw her Girl go viral, becoming the fastest-selling hardback novel for adults in history. ‘When it went to number one in the US, that was a total shock. I saw it as a small, English, slightly depressing book. I didn’t think it was something the Americans would necessarily take to their hearts.’
But readers in the States and here really did fall for Rachel, the commuter with a lot of problems and a bagful of gin-and-tonic cans who sees – or thinks she sees – something troubling from the window of her train.
Hawkins found herself being feted – but also challenged in a way few other authors have to face. ‘I have to justify everything I write or say. A book that does well is picked apart more. That’s obviously uncomfortable for me – but on the upside my book gets more attention.’
Dreamworks made the film of The Girl On The Train, but did Hawkins have any say in how it turned out? ‘Nothing. No official say at all.’
It wasn’t just the words, either. Her appearance was suddenly under scrutiny as she tried to write the follow-up at the same time as dealing with a dizzying round of signings, interviews and premieres. ‘I didn’t want to do the whole red-carpet thing. Nobody wants to stand next to Emily Blunt! Standing next to the most beautiful woman in the world when you’re not beautiful, you’re not skinny and glamorous yourself is not comfortable. Obviously. But I’m not there to be skinny and glamorous. I’m a writer. We’re not supposed to look amazing.’
Tell that to JK Rowling, I say. The Harry Potter author has glammed up incredibly since she achieved the kind of fame that Hawkins is now tasting.
‘I know! She’s letting the side down really, isn’t she? JK Rowling and Zadie Smith, setting up unrealistic expectations. It’s really depressing how many gorgeous authors are out there.’
For the record, Hawkins, 44, is beautifully turned out in a trouser suit and flowing yellow scarf when we meet at a town house club in Clerkenwell, just around the corner from the new flat she has bought in an area that is as cool as London currently gets.
She’s calmer, more confident now then we met two years ago, but I thought she’d be happier about what has happened to her. ‘Some days I am ecstatically happy about it. Then you have to get on with your normal life, go and get the dry cleaning.’
She couldn’t have afforded dry cleaning before, could she? ‘I don’t iron, all right?’
All of this is said with a playful half-smile. ‘There is such a jarring disconnect between sitting in your garret writing and having to run around everywhere, selling things. I’m not a seller.’
Would she swap this for the old life then? Hawkins laughs and shakes her head. Not a chance. ‘I do find myself moaning about things like my schedule but then I think, ‘Most writers would kill for this level of publicity. Do not be ungrateful. You never know when it’s all going to go away.’
Into The Water is a gothic thriller about drownings – witch-duckings, suicides and possible murders – in a remote northern village. It’s a dark tale every bit as mesmerising as The Girl On The Train, but a bigger challenge to the reader, with the story told in multiple voices.
Success often brings a backlash – justified or not – and Hawkins is bracing herself.
Hawkins talks with disarming honesty about her struggle to know what to do with a fortune estimated at £10 million and the pressure she’s under to deliver a successful follow-up
‘I’m still very nervous about the book. We’re getting down to the crunch time, when people are going to start talking about it. That’s really nerve-racking.’
Her fellow thriller writer Val McDermid has written one of the first reviews, expressing sympathy for the author but disappointment with the book. However, others have been more encouraging.
If readers don’t like it they will not hold back, as Hawkins knows. ‘Everybody will be talking. There will be chatter on social media and not all of it will be good. You don’t want to let it affect you. So yeah, that’s daunting.’
I’m amazed it should still bother her. Has all the adulation not given her a thicker skin? ‘No. Sometimes the comments feel personal. I don’t look at Goodreads or Amazon any more. I haven’t done for a very long time. All I will take away is the negativity. I skim over the good comments and seize on the horrible things that people say. It’s ludicrous. You can’t take all that on.’
Did she find it tough, writing a follow-up to such a success? ‘It has been harder to write in many ways. People have said to me, “Why didn’t you just do the same again?” I wouldn’t even know how to do that. The Girl on the Bus? The Girl on the Tram?’
Weirdly, the new book has a connection with watching from the window. ‘I remember going on the train to Edinburgh and you see that gorgeous coast. I fell in love with it. I wanted the story to feel dark and gothic, so I set it in an entirely fictional part of Northumberland. It’s wild. It’s beautiful. There’s a bleakness about it. I wanted a hint of the supernatural about it. One of the places in Britain where they had witch-hunts was that part of the north. So it felt right.’
She wrote a first draft but was distracted by all the showbiz, so took herself off there to rework it. ‘I rented a cottage by the sea in Craster, on that beautiful bit of coast where there are all the ruined castles. I was by myself. I just walked and wrote. That is how I would like to live my life, longer term. I love London, but being able to walk by the sea is very good for the soul.’
Into The Water starts with Libby, a teenager suspected of witchcraft and about to be forced under water in the 17th century. We leap to the present day and Nel, a photographer putting together a book about a notorious spot called The Drowning Pool. She goes missing and is found in the water – to the horror of her teenage daughter Lena and her estranged sister Jules.
There’s a rugged detective called Sean and his tough father Patrick, a handsome teacher called Mark and other villagers including the witchy Nickie Morgan, who thinks she communes with the dead. But they’ve all got dark secrets in the past, and none of them is what they seem. ‘I’m fascinated by memory,’ says Hawkins. ‘The Girl On The Train had a very specific kind of memory thing going on, a blackout from drinking. This is something far more universal. We all tell stories about ourselves, that’s how we make our life make sense, but we misremember things. I was talking to my mother about something that happened when I was a child and she said, “You weren’t actually there, you’ve just seen a photograph.” I thought, “No! I was there! I can remember the feeling of the sand between my toes!”
‘Then I was thinking, “What if the thing you misremembered wasn’t some trivial day at the seaside? What if it was something fundamental? What would that do to you?”’
How much of the novel is biographical? ‘None. There are little elements, like misremembering things or having one of those very intense teenage girl friendships that are like love affairs, but there isn’t a “me” in this book. There wasn’t in the last one.’
Hawkins writes at home in Clerkenwell. ‘I have a view over the tops of other buildings. I can see St Luke’s. I have all my books, my laptop and a desk. That’s it. I’m quite disciplined. I don’t have distractions. I don’t have any kids, I insist on there being quiet. As long as there’s quiet I’m happy.’
When we first met, Hawkins was single but living with her ex. She now lives with a new partner, a lawyer in his 50s who was a friend for several years before he became her lover. ‘For working, my ideal would be complete silence. As a compromise I sometimes allow him to play instrumental music. There’s been a lot of Philip Glass lately.’
What if the words don’t come? ‘I go for walk. Or have a bath.’
Her accent has become a little more transatlantic but you can still hear her upbringing in Zimbabwe, where her father was an academic. Hawkins came to London for her sabbatical at the age of 17 but got a place at Oxford and never went back.
She was a journalist before a publisher asked her to try writing a chick-lit story and, when we last met, she had not yet received any royalties and was dazed at the thought that she might earn a million. I’ve heard it’s ten times that now – at least. She doesn’t like the question. ‘I’m not going to talk about the money. Actually, can I nip to the loo?’
When’s she back, I ask if she feels guilty at suddenly having so much? ‘I suppose there is a moral obligation I impose on myself. I’ve made more money than I need, so I may as well do something good with it. You look at people like JK Rowling, who has set up her own charity and has a real strategy, and I feel like that’s the sort of thing I should be striving towards … not just piecemeal reacting to people asking me for things, which is slightly what I have been doing so far.’
How has success changed her? ‘My life is very similar. I travel more. I stay in nicer places. I haven’t spent very much money, apart from buying a flat. I think I am exactly the same.’
Surely she must have been on a big holiday? ‘Yeah. I did a road trip: Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon Washington. It was amazing. It was so nice just to disappear.’
Emily Blunt and Paula Hawkins pose together in a promo shot for the film. The movie took more than $170 million at the box office but some of the reactions from fans of the book were harsh
Dreamworks made the film of The Girl On The Train, but did she have any say in how it turned out? ‘Nothing. No official say at all. The producers were great and kept me in the loop but it was a courtesy. If I had said ‘absolutely not’ to something they would have said, “Tough luck”.’
Was that her Rachel though? ‘She’s not physically the Rachel of the book, in that she’s beautiful. But she did a really good job of being a messed-up drunk. That is not an easy thing to do. The way she carried herself as if she hated herself. All of that was spot-on.
‘The first time I saw the film I didn’t really take it in. I watched it in a screening room without the music; it wasn’t the final cut, so it was a bit weird. And I wasn’t sure, “Is this any good?” The second time I saw it was at the premiere and then I loved it.’
The movie took more than $170 million at the box office but some of the reactions from fans of the book were harsh. ‘I know not everybody likes it. There are very few adaptations that I have liked. If you love a book it’s very hard to like the film.’
The biggest change was that they moved the action from the suburbs of London to the outskirts of New York. ‘I don’t have a problem with that. The location is the commute. London doesn’t really feature in the book and New York doesn’t really feature in the film.’
Emily Blunt was allowed to keep her accent, portraying Rachel as an English woman lost in New York. ‘It was good making her an exile. It gives another layer to her loneliness and isolation.’
Hawkins does not want to seem ungrateful. She’s living every writer’s dream, after all. And she’s working with the same producers on a film of Into The Water.
What are her ambitions now, when the success of the past two years would be so hard to repeat? ‘Mostly what I want to do is get back to writing. Over the last two years I have had so much to do, but I have just longed for some uninterrupted writing time.’
Not a Maserati or a yacht? ‘The only thing I dream about buying is property, but even then it’s like, “Do I really want to live there? Where do I want to live?’”
She laughs at herself, well aware that this is an absurdly good position to be in so soon after being broke and desperate. The girl on a high has her feet on the ground.
‘God, what a champagne problem!’
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday
NOW READ AN EXTRACT FROM HER NEW NOVEL
‘Alec, wake up. Nel is dead. They found her in the water’
In a remote Northumberland village, a woman is dead. Nel Abbott has been found in a notorious spot they call The Drowning Pool. In the early morning, the young son of one of her neighbours – with whom she quarrelled – wakes up and is disturbed at what he finds.
Something woke me up. I got out of bed to go to the toilet and I noticed Mum and Dad’s door was open, and when I looked I could see that Mum wasn’t in bed. Dad was snoring as usual. The clock radio said it was 4:08. I thought she must be downstairs. She has trouble sleeping. They both do now, but he takes pills which are so strong you could stand right by the bed and yell into his ear and he wouldn’t wake up.
I went downstairs really quietly because usually what happens is she turns on the TV and watches those really boring adverts about machines that help you lose weight or clean the floor or chop vegetables in lots of different ways and then she falls asleep. But the TV wasn’t on and she wasn’t on the sofa, so I knew she must have gone out.
She’s done it a few times – that I know of, at least. I can’t keep track of where everyone is all the time. The first time, she told me she’d just gone out for a walk to clear her head, but there was another morning when I woke up and she was gone and when I looked out of the window I could see that her car wasn’t parked out front where it usually is.
I think she probably goes to walk by the river or to visit Katie’s grave. I do that sometimes, though not in the middle of the night. I’d be scared to go in the dark, plus it would make me feel weird because it’s what Katie did herself: she got up in the middle of the night and went to the river and didn’t come back. I understand why Mum does it though: it’s the closest she can get to Katie now, other than maybe sitting in her room, which is something else I know she does sometimes. Katie’s room is next to mine and I can hear Mum crying.
I sat down on the sofa to wait for her, but I must have fallen asleep, because when I heard the door go it was light outside and when I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece it was quarter past seven. I heard Mum closing the door behind her and then run straight up the stairs.
I followed her up. I stood outside the bedroom and watched through the crack in the door. She was on her knees next to the bed, over on Dad’s side, and she was red in the face, like she’d been running. She was breathing hard and saying, ‘Alec, wake up. Wake up,’ and she was shaking him. ‘Nel Abbott is dead,’ she said. ‘They found her in the water. She jumped.’
I don’t remember saying anything but I must have made a noise because she looked up at me and scrambled to her feet.
‘Oh, Josh,’ she said, coming towards me, ‘oh, Josh.’ There were tears running down her face and she hugged me hard. When I pulled away from her she was still crying, but she was smiling, too. ‘Oh, darling,’ she said.
Dad sat up in bed. He was rubbing his eyes. It takes him ages to wake up properly.
‘I don’t understand. When… do you mean last night? How do you know?’
‘I went out to get milk,’ she said. ‘Everyone was talking about it… in the shop. They found her this morning.’
She sat down on the bed and started crying again. Dad gave her a hug but he was watching me and he had an odd look on his face.
‘Where did you go?’ I asked her. ‘Where have you been?’
‘To the shops, Josh. I just said.’
You’re lying, I wanted to say. You’ve been gone hours, you didn’t just go to get milk. I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t, because my parents were sitting on the bed looking at each other, and they looked happy.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday, priced £20. Offer price £14 until May 14. Order at www.mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15